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Discover how British retailers are boosting business with Azure

These case studies showcase how thriving British retailers are using Microsoft Azure to power their success

Since its launch in 2010, Microsoft Azure has enabled retailers to deliver digital products in increasingly innovative ways. Retailers working with Azure have been able to seamlessly connect physical and digital environments, and to enhance the experience of their customers and employees—both on and offline. And with further improvements being made in machine learning and business intelligence, you now have the perfect combination of customer insight and unparalleled UX.

Integration and open source

These continued updates to Azure have seen retailers increasingly adopting new cloud capabilities, as Microsoft has integrated Azure support into products such as Office 365 and Dynamics 365. But whilst this integration is a huge help to those developers already working with Microsoft, it’s Azure’s increasing open-source support that’s turning heads.

A cloud-based model

One of the biggest shifts in the last decade has been from a physical IT infrastructure to a cloud-based model, which has enabled large cost reductions by least-cost routing workloads via System Center’s Orchestrator tool. And it has also given the company much more flexibility when dealing with the huge amount of information at its fingertips.
“We can push big data sets to the Azure cloud, so we now have much more choice where we can deliver services,” says Bingham.

Are you working with Linux, Java and PHP? Not a problem. You can now develop and test your Linux and open-source components on Azure, and connect to a host of Microsoft services. For example, this added flexibility means that you can now connect a site or app developed on open-source to a tool such as Azure Active Directory—Microsoft’s Certified access management system—giving you the best of both worlds.

And in this post we’ve showcased how three leading British retailers are taking advantage of the power and opportunity provided by Azure services.

Project: Paul Smith IT delivery

  • Company: Paul Smith
  • Date: 2016

In 1970 Paul Smith opened his first boutique in Nottingham, and in the decades that followed he has become one of UK fashion’s biggest success stories. By 1976 Smith was showing his first menswear collection in Paris, and 40 years on he now boasts 100s of stores around the world, with 18 located in the UK.

For the last decade Paul Smith’s IT infrastructure has been based on Microsoft technologies, and this global undertaking is managed by just 15 people based out of the company’s Nottingham HQ. This centralised IT model works on a three-tiered structure:

  • Tier 1 is made up of three data centers; two sites in Nottingham and one in London
  • Tier 2 sites are branch offices in fashion capitals such as Paris, Milan, New York, and Tokyo
  • Tier 3 is comprised of the company’s 35 retail stores

“The role of IT at Paul Smith is foundational, yet transparent. It is behind everything that happens in our retail stores and everything we do to protect the integrity of our brand,” explains Lee Bingham, Head of IT at Paul Smith. “IT at Paul Smith facilitates business growth and enables agility in responding to the market.”

A cloud-based model

One of the biggest shifts in the last decade has been from a physical IT infrastructure to a cloud-based model, which has enabled large cost reductions by least-cost routing workloads via System Center’s Orchestrator tool. And it has also given the company much more flexibility when dealing with the huge amount of information at its fingertips.

“We can push big data sets to the Azure cloud, so we now have much more choice where we can deliver services,” says Bingham.

Paul Smith’s current dual datacentre infrastructure comprises a private cloud using Windows Server 2012 R2, with Azure cloud used for virtualisation. And to help standardise on Microsoft technologies, Paul Smith partners with risual, a member of the Microsoft Partner Network.

“The benefits of virtualization—reduced operational costs and increased agility in provisioning and migrating virtual machines to respond to the business—continue to evolve as Paul Smith updates to new versions of Windows Server,” says Richard Proud, a Director at risual. “By the time it deployed Windows Server 2012, Paul Smith had made significant headway in virtualizing high-performance workloads, such as Microsoft SQL Server and Cognos.”

Using Windows Server, Hyper-V, and Microsoft System Center to virtualise more than 80 percent of its servers, Paul Smith has improved data center density by 200 percent, and saved more than £840,000 in IT costs in just one year. It also reduced recovery time from 48 hours to 5 minutes for its mission-critical applications.

Project: M&S World employee portal

  • Company: Marks and Spencer
  • Date: 2016

Activity Planner

Thanks to earlier collaborations—on projects such as the M&S ‘Magic & Sparkle’ Christmas campaign—when Marks and Spencer decided to build a new work platform, it chose Microsoft as its software and service provider.

“Previously, we had two separate sites. One for the office and one for stores. And it was very clear that the two areas were working as two completely different businesses,” says Alex Semel, product owner of Collaborative Solutions at M&S. “This wasn’t acceptable, and we felt that we should have one site, M&S World, which we chose to develop using SharePoint Online.”

Working on the go

Whether they’re visiting suppliers, working from home, or travelling to a store, by allowing staff to continue their day to day tasks via Office 365, M&S has seen a huge boost in productivity. And employees no longer need to return to their desk or find a PC to complete their work.

 “We’ve built all of our site now to be 100% mobile, and available on any device, anytime, anywhere. So our employees can now spend more time on the sales floor, and have more visibility with the customer,” Semel explains.

Combining Yammer and SharePoint, M&S World now provides a central web portal where employees can collaborate on projects, and discover the latest information about their departments, as well as the wider business at M&S.

“There’s a whole raft of things we need to do as store management teams. So whether that’s visual merchandising, discussing the layout of grids, or working on new product development, there’s a huge amount of due diligence that’s required,” explains David Bruce, IT Service Delivery Manager at M&S. “But what the Microsoft suite has enabled us to do is coordinate all of this in a succinct and easily navigable environment.”

Building on SharePoint

Building M&S world in SharePoint has enabled staff to distribute documents, manage them online, and collaborate with other employees, and M&S has seen greater productivity and faster decision making since its introduction.

“The great feature about SharePoint, which we really exploited, is that we can tag our content and then it just naturally drops into the right places,” says Steven Collier, Technical Architect at M&S. “That way our navigation can stay cleaner and simpler, because content can be in more than one place at the same time. Simplifying the navigation provided huge time savings for users.”

Project: Watchfinder migration to Microsoft Azure

  • Company: Watchfinder
  • Date: 2016

Since Lloyd Amsdon and Stuart Hennell launched Watchfinder in 2002, it has gone on to turn over almost £200m. Watchfinder, which specialises in selling pre-owned luxury watches, now has a flagship store in London’s Royal Exchange, and employs more than 100 people. And at the heart of this rapid growth has been an obsession with technology.

From 2002, when Watchfinder was using open source tech to deliver its IT operations, to the present day, where the company now relies on Microsoft Azure to power its platform, Watchfinder is constantly looking for new ways to innovate and streamline.

“When we were on AWS we were running virtual servers, and although you can drop a virtual server and rebuild it within an hour, we don’t really want to be involved in the care and feeding for servers,” explains Jonathan Gill, CIO at Watchfinder. “One of the primary reasons for moving across to Azure is to take advantage of the platform-as-a-service offerings.”

Staying ahead of the game

As the world of hosting has developed in the last decade, so too has Watchfinder’s technology stack. Over the years Watchfinder’s hosting has progressed from dedicated servers with Rackspace, to IaaS (infrastructure-as-a-service) on AWS, and latterly to PaaS (platform-as-a-service) with Microsoft Azure.

“It’s a lower impact management burden. As we were coming off AWS we were on 12 servers. Once or twice a month you have to patch them, create a new golden image—there’s just so much time that was being eaten out of our relatively small IT team,” explains Gill. “When you come over to platform-as-a-service it’s, literally, write the code for the business, deploy it, set up the auto-scaling and configure it to the way we need it to be. And away it goes.”

With a relatively small team looking after the IT requirements at Watchfinder, Gill takes a pragmatic approach to the increasing tech pressures that success brings.

“If I don’t have to run a server, I won’t,” says Gill. “I’ll utilise cloud technology. Azure’s got the Web Apps platform, so all the websites I was running on AWS I now move into Web Apps and, at the last count, that’s 13 servers gone from my management schedule. That would previously require around four to six hours a month just on patching, as well as other care and feeding that machines need to stay up to date and secure.”

Spotting an opportunity

Gill is also quick to spot the opportunity of utilising and integrating other Microsoft technology, such as Cortana and machine learning.

“One of the things we want to do is to get the computers out of the way of staff. If we can bring in Cortana integration with chatbots, then members of staff can be on the road

and text in to see what our stock holdings are, or what we’d pay for a particular watch,” Gill says.

“And I’m beginning to look into big data and machine learning, so Microsoft’s work on Cognitive Services, for example, is pretty interesting to me. All the things I’m planning to do would have cost us an absolute fortune on paying consultants, because we can’t know everything in-house, but with Azure, I can leverage new technologies easily and probably get around 95% of the way to where I need to be, purely with our own resources and skills.”

APIs to Work

In 2016, Watchfinder made it onto the Sunday Times Virgin Fast Track 100 league table. And with more than one million unique visitors hitting the Watchfinder site each month, and up to 1,500 watches being sold at an average price of £4,200, Gill believes that automation is vital if the company is to continue its success.
“We’re going to be using machine learning elements in Azure to work out what watches we need to buy, when we need to buy them and in what order the service department needs to service them. We can then get the right product onto the site, at the right time, and at the right price,” says Gill. “But that’s just the first phase. As we explore these ideas further, we’ll probably start to think about recommendation engines, too.”

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